Dawn Franks

When is a gift philanthropy and when is it charity? When you give to help one person, is it charity or philanthropy? Is it both?

I spent the first 20 years of my adult career raising money, working with volunteers and delivering services. I did not have time to ponder such questions or think of them as important. So long as needed funds reached organizations delivering services with positive results, I believed the gift was charity and that all charity was philanthropy.

The number of nonprofit organizations grew, meeting the needs of most individuals. Yet, even as I worked to provide services, there were days when someone didn’t meet the established criteria. A direct gift from one person seemed the only answer.

Now, 20 more years have passed. I have watched as others give in big and little ways. I have witnessed charity up close and philanthropy even closer.

Giving represented the organized action of many individuals. Sometimes it was one individual giving to one organization to impact many. Other times, it was many individuals giving together to one or more organizations, serving many.

Today, I ponder the questions through a different lens. Like having my eyes checked by the optometrist while I read the eye chart as he flips through various lenses, I am discovering the answers are more multi-focal than a single vision.

From time to time over the years, I would read about the well-known Jewish philosopher Maimonides, one of the most prolific Torah scholars of the Middle Ages, a great astronomer and a physician.

He authored the “Eight Levels of Charity,” each level from greatest to least great.

The greatest level, and I paraphrase, is to provide support to a person you know by a gift or loan, entering into a partnership or finding employment for him so that it builds up or supports him and he does not need to depend on others.

In my words, it is to help someone you know directly in such a way that it helps them to grow and be independent. To lose sight of the impact of giving to one person you know by granting, gifting, loaning or helping them is to lose sight of the gift of love. In the Biblical sense, the gift of charity.

Is one gift to one person charity, or is it philanthropy? I wandered around the internet, curious about definitions.

One hundred ninety-one years after Noah Webster published the American Dictionary of the English Language, establishing an American style of spelling and grammar usage, the definition of charity and philanthropy have blurred around the edges. The words are often used interchangeably.

Webster’s 1828 dictionary defines charity as “that disposition of heart which inclines men to think favorably of their fellow man and to do them good.” He defines philanthropy as not only “the love of mankind,” but goes on to include “benevolence towards the whole human family.”

Even Webster recognized the difference in giving to the fellow man, one person, compared to all of humanity, the organized style of giving most often done today.

In the modern definition, charity is the voluntary giving of help, typically in the form of money, to those in need as aid, welfare or relief. Philanthropy is the desire to promote the welfare of others, expressed especially by the generous donation of money to good causes — the love of mankind.

When I give to someone I know, to help during a difficult period, or I give to help that individual toward a longer-term goal of an improved lot in life, we are each changed. That’s why Maimonides called giving directly to an individual the greatest level of giving.

Philanthropy and charity are not at all the same. I may feel good about philanthropy, giving to causes that have an impact on mankind, but I experience an even greater feeling of joy when I give to change the circumstances of just one person.

I do not take such giving lightly. It requires care and is intentional. The art of giving well is a practice born out one gift at a time, one person at a time.

Dawn Franks, the author of the e-book Giving Fingerprints, is CEO of Your Philanthropy. She provides advising services to families, businesses and foundations to enhance the giving experience and maximize impact. She writes a blog, the YP Journal, at Comments and questions are welcome. Send to

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